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Suspected Spy Ship Sunk  by Japanese Coast Guard - 2001-12-22

A suspected spy ship has sunk in the East China Sea, after an exchange of gun fire with the Japanese coast guard. The mysterious ship was pursued for several hours by a flotilla of Japanese vessels.

Japanese coast guard officials say a surveillance aircraft spotted the unidentified boat, inside Japan's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

According to Japanese officials, after the vessel refused orders to halt, the Japanese coast guard fired shots, hitting the rogue ship. They say the 100-ton vessel caught fire, as it headed into international waters.

Japanese media say the boat was equipped with features suggestive of surveillance activities. At least 20 Japanese vessels eventually gave chase, including a pair of naval destroyers. The coast guard says two people under a blanket on the mystery boat opened fire with automatic weapons. The Japanese returned fire and the suspected spy ship sank, throwing about 15 crewmen into the sea.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe says it is possible the crew members themselves sank the ship. Other government officials say the Japanese vessels were ordered not to rescue the sunken ship's crew, for fear they were armed.

This is only the second time since the end of World WarII that Japanese ships have fired shots in anger. In a March 1999 incident, Japanese military vessels pursued two suspected North Korean spy boats, which escaped during a high seas chase.

There is no definitive word from the Japanese military on the identity of the boat in this weekend's incident.

Officials say the vessel had two Chinese characters meaning "long" and "fishing" on its left side. Japanese media say officials are unsure if the ship was from China or North Korea, but one thing they are certain of -it was not just an ordinary fishing boat.